AIBS Endorses Call to Study Racism in Science

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) has endorsed a science community letter supporting House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson’s (D-TX) request that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) investigate systemic racism in academic research.

On July 29, 2020, Chairwoman Johnson requested Dr. Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, undertake “a rigorous and thoughtful analysis of the extent to which the U.S. scientific enterprise perpetuates systemic inequities to the detriment of society as a whole, as well as how those inequities are manifested.” Johnson called on the Academies to install a panel of experts to “assess the influence of systemic racism in academia on the careers of individuals belonging to racial and ethnic groups historically underrepresented in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce.”

The community letter supports the request, arguing, in part: “While efforts to increase diversity in the scientific workforce may have produced incremental change, we have yet to see large-scale results. Across disciplines, demographic representation throughout the ranks of academia still fails to reflect the diversity of our society. We are hopeful that a comprehensive study by the NASEM will yield the data and tools that the academic community needs to pursue evidence-based changes leading to more rapid progress.”

“A scientific enterprise that reflects the diversity of our nation will be more innovative and better equipped to address the challenges before us,” the groups note.

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Science, Medical Groups Oppose Fetal Tissue Ethics Board Recommendations

AIBS joined 76 other scientific, medical, and patient groups in expressing concerns about the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board’s report that recommends withholding funding for most of the applications submitted to NIH to conduct medical research using human fetal tissue.

After reviewing 14 research proposals in July 2020, the Ethics Board recommended in a report sent to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee that Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar only fund one of the proposals and withhold funding for the remaining 13.

The community letter addressed to Secretary Azar reads, in part: “The evaluation process for publicly funded research must be insulated from politics and allowed to impartially identify promising research proposals that are ethically sound and scientifically and technically rigorous. This is fundamental to the meritocracy of American science that is envied around the world. In this case, each of the research proposals reviewed by the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board had been peer-reviewed and deemed meritorious with the potential to advance scientific discovery to improve human health.”

The groups argue that “the Ethics Advisory Board’s recommendations will limit the ethical use of an indispensable biomedical research tool and undermine medical advances in the United States,” urging the Secretary to reject the panel’s recommendations and revoke the HHS policy that restricts research using human fetal tissue.

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Relief Negotiations Stall After "Skinny" GOP Proposal Fails in Senate

A pared-down COVID-19 relief package introduced by Senate Republicans failed to move forward in the Senate after failing to capture the 60 votes needed to close debate. The chamber voted 52-47 - along party lines.

The “skinny” proposal was introduced on September 8, after relief negotiations between Democratic leadership and the Trump Administration have been stalled for weeks as a result of disagreement over the size of the package. Republicans in the Senate had introduced a $1 trillion package, entitled the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act (HEALS Act) in late July. The House passed a broader $3 trillion measure - the Heroes Act - in May. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was pushing for the White House to increase its offer for the package from $1 trillion to $2.2 trillion.

The latest relief proposal from Senate Republicans, estimated to cost $500 billion - about half of the HEALS Act - included additional funds for the Paycheck Protection Program; funds for schools and testing; liability protections for schools and businesses; and $300 in increased weekly federal unemployment benefits through December 27, 2020.

The bill included provisions that the Democrats did not support, including liability protections for businesses. “The cynical Republican bill was emaciated, inadequate, and designed to fail. Americans need help now, and Congress needs to respond in a way that meets the nation’s very real and urgent needs,” stated Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and urged Republicans “to come to the table, meet us halfway, and negotiate in good faith on a bipartisan comprehensive bill that will benefit the entire country.”

According to E&E News, a number of Senators do not expect a deal to be reached before the November election, although some lawmakers are still hopeful. Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) said the relief push “looks” dead, but added that the situation could change. “You never know around here, sometimes things look bleak and they revive, and so forth,” said Shelby. “But we thought the scaled-down version was a good bill, a good timing and everything else. The Democrats obviously thought otherwise.” The Senate is scheduled to be in session the first week of October before going into recess until after the elections.

Although relief negotiations have reached an impasse, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle hope to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government open in the new fiscal year starting October 1. Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have come to a tentative agreement to pursue a clean stopgap spending bill - free of controversial policy riders - to avoid a government shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has expressed support for a continuing resolution lasting until December, but Democratic lawmakers have yet to weigh in on the duration of the measure.

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Lawmakers Concerned About Political Meddling at CDC

In a September 14, 2020 letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) expressed concerns about political interference at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawmakers have called for a briefing with Secretary Azar to address these concerns.

The letter was in response to reports from Politico that the politically appointed HHS spokesperson, Michael Caputo, and his aides demanded and received the right to review and solicit changes to CDC’s weekly scientific reports to health professionals on the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic. In some emails to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials, communications staff even suggested that the agency’s reports would undermine President Trump’s optimistic rhetoric about the pandemic. According to Politico, CDC officials have resisted the most extensive changes, but have increasingly allowed the political officials to review CDC’s reports and, in some cases, allowed changes to the language.

It was also reported that Caputo and his aides attempted to halt the release of certain CDC reports, including delaying by a month a report that addressed hydroxychloroquine - the malaria drug touted by President Trump as a coronavirus treatment. The report found that “the potential benefits of these drugs do not outweigh their risks.”

“We are concerned that this unprecedented attempt to undermine our nation’s public health is either happening with your approval or rogue political appointees are taking actions behind your back,” stated Pallone and DeGette. “Either way, these actions are doing grave harm to the very public health agencies you lead and threatening the health of the nation. Congress and the American people deserve to know if you approved these egregious actions by these political appointees, and if it was done without your knowledge, what actions you will take to ensure that it never happens again. It is long past time that you stand up for public health.”

DeGette and Pallone have demanded a briefing by September 18, 2020, in which they have asked Secretary Azar to address several questions, including whether he will “commit to ensuring that science, and not political considerations, inform HHS’s contributions to the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 pandemic response” and what specific actions will be taken to “prohibit the involvement of political appointees in matters that have been and must be driven by science.”

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Senate Democrats Outline Plan to Address Climate Crisis

On August 25, 2020, the Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis released a report, The Case for Climate Action: Building a Clean Economy for the American People, outlining a policy roadmap for addressing climate change.

The panel, led by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) and comprised entirely of Democratic lawmakers, provides “a framework for Congress to finally do what is necessary to build the clean energy future.” The report makes several recommendations for tackling climate change, including increasing federal spending on climate action to 2 percent of gross domestic product annually in order to achieve 100 percent net-zero emissions by 2050. The report also sets forth a goal of creating 10 million new jobs and calls for net-zero global emissions by 2050. Notably, the plan would ensure that 40 percent of the benefits from federal climate investments “help communities of color and low-income, deindustrialized, and disadvantaged communities.”

“We have the opportunity to build more and better jobs for the American people, jobs that’ll help re-stimulate the economy and aid in our transition to clean energy,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY). “When Democrats retake the majority in the Senate, we will unify to move swiftly on legislation to tackle the climate crisis. Passing climate legislation will be a top priority for Senate Democrats and for me.”

Earlier this year, Democratic lawmakers in the House released a similar report, which included recommendations provided by AIBS in response to a 2019 request for information from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Unlike the House plan, the Senate plan does not offer specific legislation, but instead provides a collection of broad policy prescriptions focused on different sectors of the economy, including electricity, industry, agriculture, and transportation.

The Senate framework calls for investing in natural infrastructure solutions, such as ecosystem restoration. “Unlike traditional infrastructure, which deteriorates with age and can actually aggravate flooding, nature-based solutions are self-sustaining,” reads the report. “Green infrastructure also provides significant community benefits like improved air quality, recreational space, lower air temperatures, shade for pedestrians, and ecosystem restoration.”

Like the House report, the Senate report also calls for expanding broadband internet access to farmers so they can “take advantage of precision agriculture technology and use precise weather forecasting technology in their decision-making, which can help reduce inputs and use of carbon-intensive practices.”

The panel also recommends that the United States recommit to the Paris climate agreement to “rejoin the global leadership acting on climate”; integrate climate into federal agency decision-making on matters related to foreign policy, national security, and humanitarian assistance; and accelerate investments in research and development to support clean energy and other climate-related research.

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USFWS Proposes Revisions to Critical Habitat Designations

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has issued a new proposed rule that would modify the process of designating critical habitats under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If finalized, the new regulation could potentially shrink critical habitats, which are areas essential for recovery of a species.

Under ESA, critical habitats are to be designated “on the basis of the best scientific data available and after taking into consideration the economic impact, the impact on national security, and any other relevant impact.” The law allows exclusion of certain areas if “the benefits of such exclusion outweigh the benefits of specifying such area as part of the critical habitat” unless the exclusion “will result in the extinction of the species concerned.”

With the proposed regulation, USFWS intends to clearly lay out when and how it will undertake an analysis of whether to exclude certain lands from critical habitat. This includes identifying a “non-exhaustive list of categories of potential impacts” for USFWS to consider. Among the categories of “other relevant impacts” that may be considered, the proposed rule includes public health and safety; community interests; and the environment, such as increased risk of wildfire or pest and invasive species management. According to USFWS, the “benefits of exclusion may include avoidance of additional permitting requirements, time delays, or additional cost requirements to the community development project…due to the designation of critical habitat.”

The new proposal could also make it easier to keep federal lands out of future critical habitat designations: “We will now consider whether to exclude … Federal lands on which non-Federal entities have a permit, lease, contract or other authorization for use where the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion, so long as the exclusion of a particular area does not cause extinction of a species.”

USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith explained that the the proposed rule “would provide greater transparency for the public, improve consistency and predictability for stakeholders affected by ESA determinations and stimulate more effective conservation on the ground.”

The proposed rule has received swift criticism from conservation groups. According to E&E News, Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said that the new proposal “puts a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of developers and industry, making it even easier to exclude areas from designation as critical habitat.” Ya-Wei Li, Director for Biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, stated that the proposal “does increase the likelihood that FWS will exclude an area from critical habitat.”

USFWS is inviting public comments on the proposed rule until October 8, 2020.

This is the latest effort by the Trump Administration to reconfigure how the ESA is enforced. In August 2019, the Administration finalized significant changes to the regulations that implement the ESA by making it easier for regulators to delist species from the endangered species list and remove automatic protections for threatened species.

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NSF Requests Information on STEM Education

In coordination with the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC’s) Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Science Foundation (NSF) is soliciting input on the implementation of the Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan, Charting a Course For Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education.

This Request for Information (RFI) addresses changes in education systems that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Information collected from this solicitation may be used to guide future Federal STEM education resource development.

The questions included in this RFI focus on the following elements of the Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan:

  • Future opportunities in STEM education;
  • Develop STEM education digital resources;
  • Increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM;
  • Engage students where disciplines converge;
  • Develop and enrich strategic partnerships;
  • Build computational literacy; and
  • Community use and implementation of the Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan.

Comments can be submitted online to CoSTEM@nsf.gov until October 19, 2020. Further details about this RFI can be found at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-09-04/html/2020-19681.htm

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2020 ADBC Conference and Pre-Conference Webinar Series

Taking the Pulse of Natural History Collections During COVID-19 Series: Where are we now?

Join iDigBio, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Biodiversity Collections Network, National Science Foundation, and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections for a preconference mini-series on September 15-17, 2020 at 2:00-3:30 PM Eastern to discuss the climate of natural history collections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

September 15: Review Results of BCON’s Community Survey & Break-out room discussion Speakers: Gil Nelson, Barbara Thiers

September 16: Collections Perspectives & Break-out room discussion Speakers: Brian Atkinson, John Bates, Emily Braker, Mare Nazaire

September 17: Moving Forward: Communities Response and Opportunities for the Future: Presentations and Panel Discussion/Q&A Speakers: Robert Gropp, Scott Miller, Pam Soltis, Roland Roberts

Zoom link for series: https://ufl.zoom.us/j/93561818170?pwd=eVRxU1RWQWE2VGFhTi91enV6WWJvdz09

For additional information visit: https://www.idigbio.org/content/webinar-series-adapting-covid-resources-natural-history-collections-new-virtual-world

Virtual ADBC Summit 2020

The 2020 Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) conference will be held on September 22-25, 2020 at 1:00 PM Eastern. This year’s virtual format will allow a unique opportunity for all interested members within the ADBC community to be able to attend and participate in this yearly event. The annual ADBC Summit brings together representatives from TCNs, PENs, NSF, iDigBio, and other initiatives related to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s ADBC program. The Summit inspires collaboration and focuses discussions on shared goals, challenges, and opportunities.

September 22: New TCN Orientation and Existing TCN Networking Opportunities

September 23: Keynote Speakers: Ian Owens and Rebecca Johnson, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History & New TCN Presentations

September 24: TCN Presentations

September 25: National Academy of Sciences’ Survey Report, Looking forward with NSF Panel, and Panel Discussion/Q&A

For additional agenda details and daily Zoom Registration information, please visit: https://www.idigbio.org/wiki/index.php/ADBCSummit2020

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Prepare Your Resume, Hone Your Interview Skills

Registration is open for the Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists, an online professional development program from the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate programs in the United States do an excellent job of preparing students for careers in academia. As early career professionals and a growing number of reports note, however, many STEM graduates (including those with advanced degrees) are interested in employment in sectors beyond the professoriate.

Scientists continue to report that they feel ill-prepared and ill-equipped to pursue employment in these settings.

To help scientists identify and successfully transition into the careers they desire, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) developed Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists. This intensive multi-day program blends lecture and hands-on exercises. Designed by scientists with years of work experience in diverse settings and a career coach, the program provides graduate students to senior scientists with the information, tools, and resources required to successfully identify and secure employment in a diversity of careers, including science policy, communications, researchers or program managers in the private sector, research funding organizations, non-profit management, international development, government agencies, and others.

Course participants will:

  • Identify and clarify career interests and opportunities;
  • Learn to communicate their knowledge and skills to employers;
  • Develop strategies for finding employment;
  • Develop application materials with feedback from instructors;
  • Prepare for and practice different interview styles and scenarios.

Current graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and scientists interested in transitioning to a new employment sector should consider signing up.

This course will be offered online in three half-day sessions conducted on September 25, October 2, and October 9, 2020. The program will be offered live from 12:00 - 3:30 PM Eastern Time.

For more information, including a general program agenda, and to register, please visit: https://www.aibs.org/events/employmentbootcamp.html

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Enter the 2020 Faces of Biology Photo Contest

Enter the Faces of Biology Photo Contest for your chance to win $250 and to have your photo appear on the cover of the journal BioScience.

The competition, sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), recognizes scientists who use imagery to communicate aspects of biological research to the public and policymakers.

The theme of the contest is “Faces of Biology.” Photographs entered into the contest must depict a person, such as a scientist, researcher, collections curator, technician, or student, engaging in biological research. The depicted research may occur outside, in a lab, with a natural history collection, on a computer, in a classroom, or elsewhere.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how science is being conducted in 2020. You are invited to share how you are conducting your research in these unusual times.

The First Place Winner will have his/her winning photo featured on the cover of BioScience, and will receive $250 and a one year subscription to BioScience. The Second and Third Place Winners will have his/her winning photo printed inside BioScience, and will receive a one year subscription to BioScience.

The winning photo from the 2019 contest was featured on the cover of the April 2020 issue of BioScience.

Submissions must be received by 11:59:59 p.m. Eastern Time on September 30, 2020.

For more information or to enter the contest, visit https://www.aibs.org/public-programs/photocontest.html.

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Short Takes

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is holding a webinar entitled, Designing Research Campaigns for the Next Decade of Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, on September 29 from 1:00-4:00 PM Eastern Time. The Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space 2020-2030 is slated to begin later this year, bringing together the research community to identify priorities for the next decade. The survey will include a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) request to present research ideas, which may integrate multiple missions and multiple disciplines to tackle an overarching scientific or exploration goal. Learn more about NASA's new research campaign initiative and ways to share ideas with the decadal survey during this webinar. Invited speakers will discuss the decadal survey, flagship missions in NASA's science mission directorate, and how to form teams and develop ideas for decadal survey white papers. Learn more and register at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/designing-research-campaigns-for-biological-and-physical-sciences-in-space-registration-117687960859

  • The National Academies is requesting nominations of experts to organize a workshop on future directions in paleoclimate research to advance understanding of current and future change in the Earth's climate system. The workshop, funded by the National Science Foundation, will be informed by input from the scientific community. The workshop will identify gaps in current understanding of past climate variability and processes and explore potential research strategies and technological capabilities to fill those gaps. Individuals with expertise in paleoclimatology and Earth system science, including ocean, cryosphere, geologic, and atmospheric data and processes, and computational climate and Earth System Modeling, are sought. Nominations will be accepted until Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5818792/Call-for-Nominations-Identifying-New-Community-Driven-Science-Themes-for-NSF-s-Support-of-Paleo-Perspectives-on-Climate-Change-P2C2.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking nominations of qualified candidates to be considered for a 2-year term on the Task Force on Agricultural Air Quality Research, established by the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 to provide recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture on agricultural air quality issues. Nominations will be accepted until November 9, 2020. More information can be found at at: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-09-08/html/2020-19783.htm

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